Jazzmeia Horn to play Coltrane Jazz Fest
It’s easy to think that some sort of predestination was involved. With a name like Jazzmeia Horn, one might assume that fate had chosen a musical path for her. And, in fact, Horn, a Texas-born jazz singer who lives in New York City, said music was her first language: she started singing before she could speak. Her mother told stories of Horn making low humming noises as a newborn. Given that everyone in her family either sang or played an instrument, musicality surrounded Horn. Her grandfather was a pastor, her grandmother played piano in the church services and her mother sang in the choir while her father played drums.
Horn said that it was only later in life that she realized her household was unusually rooted in song. “At Thanksgiving time,” she said, “other people would usually talk about what they were grateful for, we would sing songs about being grateful.”
For a time, as a child, Horn thought that people who couldn’t sing or play an instrument had some sort of physical impairment or a problem that she was unable to understand.
I spoke with Horn earlier this week by phone from her home in Harlem as she put her two young daughters down for their afternoon nap. Horn will perform at the 8th annual John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival in High Point on Sept. 1.
Horn, 27, released her debut album A Social Call last year. It features her confident and impressive takes on standards like “I Remember You” and “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” and medleys that mix soulful hard bop and spiritual jazz with gospel and liberation music. One track segues from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is sometimes referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” into “Moanin’,” a song with a sizzling head-nodding blues riff made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Another track moves from “Afro Blue,” a tune associated with John Coltrane, into “Wade In the Water.” Also on the record is Horn’s version of “The Peacocks (A Timeless Place),” a complex and intricate piece, written by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday accompanist Jimmy Royles, with a lot of unexpected chromatic movement. It’s a song that Horn performed at the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition, which she won.
Working her way through a song with complicated turns and twists is one of Horn’s skills. Another is her virtuosic scat-singing, for which she deploys insistent rhythmic accents, rapid-fire runs, sax-like flurries and more. Her upbringing as a performer in church, charged with singing sacred music that required a pure heart, honesty and an ego that was kept in check — all of that gave Horn a stage presence that is poised and serious, but comfortable and warm, too.
She’s been singing in public since she was 3 years old, and so it’s become entirely natural for her to get up on stage and make music.
“I don’t think about it, it’s just a part of my being,” Horn said.
Horn came to New York City on a scholarship to go to the New School. She found herself in a jazz scene that was bubbling with new energy from young artists with a sense of respect for the past coupled with a willingness to push out in new directions, to fold elements of pop and soul into the repertoire, or to dig up obscure old blues and ragtime tunes from the 1920s or earlier.
Music-making, for Horn, is a way of harnessing one’s energies and directing them out into the world. There’s uplift and positivity, but there’s also concern (particularly in her poetic spoken-word moments) about the state of the world. Songs — like the blues lament of “Moanin’” — can serve to exorcise bad feelings, to cast out the sense of never-ending struggle and injustice. She also addresses racism, pollution and poverty. Horn throws herself into the songs.
“I definitely have a spiritual and holistic approach to music. With this reverence that I have for music, it started out with a reverence for God, but God is love, God is everything,” she said. “So the music deserves all of me.”
Horn fits nicely onto the lineup of the two-day festival in High Point. Other bold and innovative vocalists playing the 2018 John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival include Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter; it will be a good weekend for fans of jazz vocals. There will also be plenty of expansive horn-centric music that pays tribute to the mix of tender balladry and ecstatic spiritual questing embodied by the music of jazz giant John Coltrane, who was born in North Carolina in 1926. Coltrane’s son Ravi will perform at the festival. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, guitarist Lee Ritenour, singer/guitarist Jackie Venson and more will perform at the festival.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.